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One of the most common questions that California workers ask is also one of the most basic – “am I entitled to a break to eat?”
In short, the answer is yes. Most people are entitled to at least one meal break for each shift they work. Hourly workers are also entitled to periodic rest breaks throughout the day.
Here’s what you need to know to make sure your rights are being protected at work.
California law says that any employee who works a shift that is five hours or longer must be given at least 30 minutes to eat a meal. If your shift is 12 hours or longer, you get to take two meal breaks.
If you work less than 6 hours in total, you can choose to skip your meal break. You must make this choice yourself. Your employer cannot force you to skip your break.
Your employer can require employees to stay on the premises during a meal break. If they do, your workplace must have a designated and suitable place for you to eat.
The rule is slightly different for employees who work on jobsites (construction workers, etc.) where the employer may not have control of the facility. In that case, you are entitled to clean water, soap and towels to wash up before meals.
Meal breaks can be unpaid only if the employee is relieved of all duty. If you are required to work during your meal (for example, because you’re the only person available to run the register or answer the phone), then you must get paid your regular rate.
Your boss, however, cannot force you not to work during your break. If you’re not required to work, but you choose to anyway, your break can still be unpaid.
Workers are also entitled to one 10-minute rest break for every four hours worked. If your shift isn’t divisible by four, periods of two hours or more are rounded up to four.
Unlike meal breaks, these rest breaks are paid. You may use them how you wish, though your employer can require you to stay on the premises.
Employers who do not allow adequate breaks face serious financial penalties. For example, they may be required to pay each employee an hour of pay for each break missed.
Break law is complex, and there are many exceptions to these general rules. If you aren’t getting the breaks you are entitled to, your best first step is to talk to an employment lawyer. The lawyer can answer your questions, help you understand your rights, and let you know what your options are.
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